The phone rings on a sunny Sunday morning. The caller ID reads the name of a hospital. You know the moment the woman at the other end of the phone asks “is this Mrs So and So”, that your life is over. The life you knew. Your life as a daughter. You can’t remember a time when you weren’t trying to prepare for this moment, this terrifying moment when your worst nightmare comes true. Mommy. I’m coming. Don’t die. Please don’t die. But she does, even though she was just at my kitchen table celebrating my husband’s birthday an hour before; even though she was strong and healthy and lucid at 86 and swam an hour each morning at the Y, and still worked part-time as a private chef; even though she lived through the Holocaust, managed to escape Hitler—for crying out loud—when someone careless and distracted drove through a red light at 70 miles an hour and killed her. Just like that.
Phones have been ringing in Boston. Lives have been changed forever by tragedy and sorrow whirling out of the blue like a fierce, blinding tornado. Dumbstruck. Heartbroken. Wild with grief. There is no quick way, or perhaps any way, back from sudden, irrevocable loss, and Boston has lost much in the time it takes to explode two bombs. And with such loss, comes something that never leaves you—the undeniable knowledge that you never have been, and never will be able to predict or prevent such loss. Whatever notion of control I thought I had, (through hyper-vigilance, prayer, feng shui, organic eating, exercise, lucky underwear, or dumb luck), over life’s peril, was shattered the day I lost my mother. I was lucky enough to reach my late 40s without ever having suffered such a loss, but it didn’t make it any easier. We have been lucky, as a country, to have had mostly peace on our own soil, mostly great good fortune, but lately the losses are piling up. Sandy. Newtown. Now Boston. As I watch the news in the obsessive way that today’s media allows us to do, I feel the panic and helplessness overwhelming me. That’s when I head to the kitchen and start pulling stuff out of the pantry and fridge. I’m not hungry, but I need to cook.
Baking is a great way to regain control. I don’t do a lot of it because I’m gluten intolerant and everyone in my house is always trying to avoid carbs, but nevertheless it’s what I needed to do today, especially when I thought about doing this confectionary tribute to the city. Baking is precise. You have to measure and as you do, you focus on what’s at hand. Flour, sugar, eggs, butter, chocolate = comfort.
There’s order and purpose and mindless repetition to calm you.
There is normalcy and even hope that springs from taking simple steps that result in something sweet and wonderful.
By the time I have made the pastry creme and the ganache and assembled all the parts into a satisfying whole, I have completed too a kind of sticky-fingered meditation in being present, on acceptance, on taking joy where you can. It’s just a cake, Boston. It’s not superhero stuff, and it won’t banish evil or pain or grief from the world. But…it’s my way of chasing that stuff back into the shadows for a bit, and of saying, my heart is with you.
- yield: 26-30 cupcakes
For the pastry cream:
4 large egg yolks
½ cup sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
Pinch of salt
2 cups milk
1¼ tsp. vanilla extract
For the cupcakes:
9 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pans
2¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2¼ tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
¾ cup milk
4 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk
1½ cups sugar
1½ tsp. vanilla extract
For the ganache:
9 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1½ tbsp. light corn syrup
To make the pastry cream, place the egg yolks in a medium bowl and whisk. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Gradually add the milk in a steady stream and cook until the mixture thickens and starts to bubble, about 5 minutes. Whisking constantly, slowly add about a third of the hot milk mixture into the bowl with the egg yolks to temper. Return the contents of the bowl back into the saucepan with the remaining milk mixture. Continue to cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture comes to a full boil and is thick enough to hold its shape when lifted with a spoon, 2-4 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a heatproof bowl. Cover with plastic wrap pressed directly onto the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled and firm, at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.
To make the cupcakes, preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Lightly brush standard size muffin pans with melted butter. Coat the muffin wells with flour and shake out the excess. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Combine the milk and butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat.
Add the eggs, egg yolk, and sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer and beat on high speed until pale yellow, fluffy, and thick enough to ribbon when the spatula is lifted, about 5 minutes. Add the dry ingredients and mix on medium-low speed just until incorporated.
Bring the milk mixture just to a boil. With the mixer on low speed, add the hot milk mixture in a slow, steady stream, mixing just until smooth. Blend in the vanilla.
Fill the prepared muffin cups halfway with the batter. Bake, rotating the pans halfway through baking, until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 15 minutes total.Transfer the pans to a cooling rack and let stand for 10 minutes. Run a small offset spatula or knife around the edges of each cake to loosen. Turn the cakes out onto the cooling rack and let cool completely.
To make the chocolate glaze, place the chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl. Combine the cream and corn syrup and bring to a simmer in a saucepan (or with short intervals in the microwave). Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let stand 1-2 minutes until the chocolate begins to melt.Gently whisk the mixture until the chocolate is totally melted and a smooth ganache forms.
To assemble the cupcakes, split each cake horizontally with a serrated knife. Spread about 1 tablespoon of the pastry cream on the bottom half of each cupcake. Replace the top halves.Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the chocolate glaze over each cupcake. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before serving. (These can be made and assembled up to 1 day in advance.)
Adapted From Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes, via Annie’s Eats